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  • Dharma Talk by Nomon Tim Burnett: Suzuki Roshi's Students, Katharine Thanas

Dharma Talk by Nomon Tim Burnett: Suzuki Roshi's Students, Katharine Thanas

  • Wednesday, September 15, 2021

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Tim’s notes:

Last week we appreciated Suzuki's Roshi's teaching on beginner's mind that begins his teachings in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, and also sets it's title. I broadened his dichotomy of beginner's mind and experts' mind a bit and we explored what happens when we get tight and self-focused, perhaps fearful or self-righteous, vs. when the experience is more open and trusting. What seems to be involved in this shift? Can you recognize when you're feeling tight and reactive instead of just believing the story of it all? Can we shift back and forth or is it more a matter of just being patient? 

Suzuki Roshi's teachings don't get into such psychological topics very much. He has such amazing ways of describing the territory of the awakened life but there's not much here that feels practical or usable in that tool-using kind of way is there? Beyond giving instruction to his students on Zen and the Zen way of ritual life he didn't give much instruction on how to be with your crazy mind. 

Sometimes he was more pointed with people in dokusan I know, but in his talks he didn't really say much about how to do practice in a way we'd recognize as practical psychologically minded people.

This is both liberating and frustrating depending on how you look at it.

One of our teachers said the wonderful thing about Soto Zen is there is no method to it. It's a method-less method. No step by step anything. Just practice. Just sit. Open up to Buddha expressing through you. Through your heart, through your body, through your boundless compassionate mind.

And yet, it's helpful to have a little more precise advise from time to time!

In these talks on ZMBM I'll sprinkle in the way his direct students who went on to become teachers themselves spoke about practice. Their expression can indeed be a lot more practical. And it's important to hold "practical" lightly too isn't it? 

Who is it that's being practical? What is there, really, to be practical about? The minute we try to be practical about practice and getting better and improving things have we narrowed our scope to that which can be understood and talked about and improved. Which is wonderful but it's not the whole life. It's good to be curious  about how form is always happening against the backdrop of emptiness.

So here's a great short teaching from a Suzuki Roshi disciple named Katherine Tanas. A student of hers, Bill Anelli, recently finished a book of her teachings in a very similar way to Trudy Dixon's work with Suzuki Roshi's teachings. Katherine's main teaching situation was at the Santa Cruz Zen Center where Chris and I have both practiced but we both missed her by a little. 

I sat there in the 1980's just before she arrived, and oddly just after Edie's first teacher Kobun Chino left there, and when Chris came to practice there a number of years ago it was right as she fell, hit her head, and was soon gone. 

I think Chris got to be one of the students who sat with her as she lay there unconscious for several days before passing away. The book is called The Trust of this Life - similarly short and punchy chapters like Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. 

Here's a little bit of one called Set Ourselves to Zero which speaks a little to her relationship to Suzuki Roshi and what the scene was like back then.

[Thanas book p. 43-44, stop before Seung Sahn is mentioned]

And here's a really practical teaching called No Pressure to Improve.

[Thanas book p. 14-16]

Some wonderful advice there about the mechanics of being stuck in a tight mind.

When my experience of mind is tight lately I'm starting to be able to feel that a lot of what I'm feeling is fear. I've always known - at some level - that there's a lot of deep fear down there. I remember times in sesshin and during monastic training that I felt like I could feel a dark, cold kind of stone deep in my heart that I intuited with some help from teachers was fear.

Now it seems the fear is ready to express itself more. It can be so intense. One of the ways I practice with it is to really try to name it "this is fear" and turn down the stories that it's attaching to. Most often the story is that I'm afraid so and so is upset with me and the thoughts get busy reviewing the evidence. There's a lot of what the scientists call "confirmation bias" in that mind: it's looking for evidence that I should be afraid. When I can breathe with it and be with it it's more possible to see fear as fear and not make things worse. But wow, when it takes hold it takes hold.

How is it for you?

So I appreciate Katherine's advice here.

Stop veering off. You have to go into it. You take a little step toward it. Then take another little step. You go as slowly as you need to…maybe you don't want to get that close. You can only do what your stomach can do. So you do it slowly at the pace your stomach and heart can handle it.

You don't hear Suzuki Roshi being so directive and step by step I don't think. His focus is letting go of the idea of there being steps. And this compliments his teachings - to see how they were digested and reflected back by his students as they become teachers.

So beautiful and important to be reminded again and again that all of his is happening in the body. Our heads do tend to dominate. For me when the fear state releases it's as she says, the stomach can get soft again. But also there's a feeling of circulation of energy in my torso - it seems to go clockwise and different parts of my personality seem to be associated with different areas - all very fascinating and pretty much all made clear from suffering and confusion and having support from teachers and a really good therapist to explore it all. Train yourself to get back into the body, keep returning there and see what your body is telling you. It might not match the story your mind is spinning.

And of course one day an irruption of fear, next day ease and joy. This happens. Everything changes without our needing to try to change it too. Moods are so powerful. And moods are also empty and transitory. I do know some - clinical depression - are of another order too of course. Not simple answers and yet sometimes we tell ourselves simple stories that lock us in a problem. Zen helps us with patience and allowing the fluidity of life to flow too.

Let's again use break outs tonight. How is it with you with a difficult emotion takes hold. Is it fear? Anger? Shame?  I remember at one point at SF Zen Center they were getting into a kind of "3 Poisons" personality typing. Greed, hatred, or delusion. Do you tend to get greedy? Wanting things to be a certain way and not another way? Do you tend towards hatred and anger? Do you tend towards confusion and delusion? If I have to simply down I'd go with delusion as my type. I hardly know how to get into hatred and angry and I'm usually, but not always generous, but boy can I feel tangled up when there's pressure or a strong emotion like fear. I tend to freeze. How is it for you?

[did breakouts last time, decided to leave them be this time, a few very positive comments about the talk and a really deep reflective mood]

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